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May, 2009:

Pity and loathing

I’m still working through my feelings about this Newsweek piece regarding George W. Bush’s not-exactly-triumphant return to Texas. I don’t know if the author realized he was basically writing about Norma Desmond, but that’s the main impression I got from the piece, even as it went out of its way to be as sympathetic to this pathetic little man as it could. I guess I’m glad that he’s decided to remain in the bubble he’s inhabited for this century, as it likely reduces the odds of there being more written about him any time soon. At the very least, he’s not following Dick Cheney’s example for how to behave post-Presidency, and for that we can all be grateful. Thanks to Elise for the link.

And so the chubbing comes to an end

So, as far as I know at this point, SB362 is dead, other bills may or may not be dead, and some semblance of normality will return to the House for the remaining days of the session. After seeing so much analysis, hand-wringing, name-calling, and what have you over the weekend, I think it may be premature to speculate as to what the fallout of all this may be. It may wind up that most of the bills people were fretting and arguing about pass anyway, and most of the ones that end up dead were always fated to die one way or another. We may yet have a special session, or we may not – even Burka is now equivocal about the possibility. I’ll simply observe that Rick Perry hasn’t telegraphed his intentions, which as best I recall is not how he’d operated in the past in calling specials. Not definitive by any stretch, but at least moderately suggestive.

If in the end most bills wind up getting passed, then the question is how does this play out in the 2010 elections. Voter ID, at least the concept of it, has a fair amount of support in the polls. You could probably knock it down a fair amount with some detailed information, but having to go into that kind of detail is generally not winning politics. On the other hand, I daresay that support is fairly shallow. Present it as a matter of priority, with voter ID being put ahead of things like insurance reform, and I bet it’s not nearly the winner it is in a vacuum. I’d bet it barely registers in an open-ended “what’s your top priority” poll question. So while I’m sure the Rs think they have an issue, I know the Ds think they do as well. And if you want to make it about obstructionism, my general belief is that in most cases it’s the majority party that gets the blame when stuff the electorate perceives as important doesn’t get done. That’s not universal – ask the national GOP how their obstructive efforts paid off for them last year – but I think it’s the starting point. Each side can claim they had priorities that they tried to enact but were prevented from doing so. All I know is I’ll put mine up against theirs any day. I’m sure they see it the same way.

I guess if I have one prediction to make coming out of this, it’s that the Speaker will be elected in 2011 with primary support from his or her own party. Just another reason to get that Democratic majority in the House, as if another were needed. For the rest, I’ll wait to see what the runes look like before I begin casting them.

Dems say they can block McLeroy

Good for them.

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus, said all 12 Democrats in the Senate plan to vote against the nomination [of Don McLeroy as Chair of the State Board of Education]. It takes 11 votes to block consideration of nominations.

Several other Democrats [Monday] evening confirmed the tally of ‘no’ votes.

“At this point, I think they’ve got the votes to block,” acknowledged one GOP senator, who asked not to be quoted for fear of retribution by colleagues who are trying to get McLeroy approved. “I’ll be a little surprised if (the Senate GOP leadership) push the vote.”

In theory, that vote may occur today or tomorrow. As you know, I don’t think it will matter much in the end if the Senate busts him or not, as I fully expect Governor Perry to replace him with someone just as bad. Many people for whom I have a lot of respect, like Muse, disagree with me on this; as expected, she’s quite happy with this news. I’m perfectly happy to see the Senate Dems stick together on this and force Perry to try again – one hopes for the last time – I’m just saying my hopes for any kind of improvement as a result of that are not high. What I’d really like to see – what I know we’d all really like to see – is for the Senate to follow through on a more substantive set of reforms for the SBOE, but that’s not looking too good. Busting McLeroy may be the best we’re going to get, and while that’s nice, it’s not enough. It’s going to take more change at the ballot box for it to get any better.

City Council redistricting lawsuit dismissed

Marc Campos mentions this in passing:

This past Friday, a federal judge threw out Lopez v. City of Houston. That is the lawsuit filed by Vidal Martinez to force the City of H-Town to draw two more district council seats immediately. I guess it is not going to happen until 2011.

I’ve searched Google, and I’ve searched the Southern District Court webpage, and other than this May 8 tweet from Liz Lara Carreno, I can’t find anything more on this beyond what Marc has written. The lawsuit, you may recall, was filed in February to force the city to abide by the 1979 ruling that required two new district Council seats to be created when the population hit 2.1 million. The city’s argument was that they wanted to wait till after the 2010 Census, while the plaintiffs argued that sufficient data existed today to do the job in time for this November’s election. A copy of the suit is here, in RTF format. If anyone can point me to an opinion or an order or something so I can have some idea of the reason for the dismissal, I’d appreciate it. Thanks very much.

Berman says he’s in for Governor

Finally, the Republican primary for Governor becomes interesting.

With plans to join the GOP primary with Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, said today he wil announce as a candidate for governor the week of July 4.

“I want to run for governor because there’s one major problem in this state that no one seems to be addressing, and in of fact they are completely avoiding it, and that was quite evident in this legislative session as well, and that’s the question of illegal aliens in Texas.”

There’s video at the link, if you possess a strong constitution. All you need to know is that Leo Berman is stone cold nuts. Which makes him ideal for today’s Republican Party.

Berman was likely bolstered in his desire to run for Governor by an opinion from AG Greg Abbott back in March that said a sitting State Rep did not have to resign his seat once he announced his intent to run for Governor. Obviously, he’ll have to file for one or the other on January 2, so this may wind up being a bluff. But Leo’s just crazy enough to do it, so don’t count him out. With him and Ron Paul disciple Debra Medina in the race, I really hope that the next batch of polls takes into account the fact that there are more than two candidates in the race. I can make a case for them skimming votes from either Perry or KBH, but however you see it, they could have an effect, maybe even force a runoff. And wouldn’t that be fun? Stace has more.

A look at the District H runoff

Professor Murray takes a look at the upcoming runoff in District H, taking into consideration the 1992 Congressional election in which Rep. Gene Green won a runoff against Ben Reyes and the early and absentee voting patterns from this election. You can see my take here. All I know is that early voting begins in a week, and things have been pretty quiet so far. At least, I’ve not yet observed any negative campaigning like what we saw in the November 2003 runoff, which is fine by me. Of course, everyone may just be waiting till after the holiday weekend to get down to business. If so, we’ll know soon enough.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 25

It’s a special Memorial Day edition of the Texas Progressive Alliance weekly blog roundup. Click on for the highlights.

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The last day of chubbing

So tomorrow night at midnight is the deadline for the House to approve Senate bills on second reading, which means that as long as the Democrats can keep the chubfest going, SB362 will die. Modulo any attempt to graft it onto some other piece of legislation, and a special session, of course. I took a break from following the ups and downs of this over the weekend – BOR did a great job with that, so catch up there if you need to. What I know at this point is that I don’t expect any kind of deal, despite a fair bit of chatter over the weekend that one was possible, and that Speaker Straus’ weak sauce obstruction charges suggests to me that the Rs are feeling less secure in their position right now than the Ds are. Beyond that, it’s all in how everyone campaigns next year. So let’s get it on, and let’s see where those chips fall.

The last day of chubbing

So tomorrow night at midnight is the deadline for the House to approve Senate bills on second reading, which means that as long as the Democrats can keep the chubfest going, SB362 will die. Modulo any attempt to graft it onto some other piece of legislation, and a special session, of course. I took a break from following the ups and downs of this over the weekend – BOR did a great job with that, so catch up there if you need to. What I know at this point is that I don’t expect any kind of deal, despite a fair bit of chatter over the weekend that one was possible, and that Speaker Straus’ weak sauce obstruction charges suggests to me that the Rs are feeling less secure in their position right now than the Ds are. Beyond that, it’s all in how everyone campaigns next year. So let’s get it on, and let’s see where those chips fall.

Perry’s salvage job

How can you tell that sine die is approaching? Governor Perry starts getting involved in the legislative process.

Perhaps state lawmakers are fatigued by Gov. Rick Perry’s long tenure or maybe they’re just balking at his leadership, but the Republican-led Legislature this year has turned its back repeatedly on the governor’s decisions and policy positions.

The Senate has rejected a Perry appointee to the parole board as incompetent for the job. His nominee for Board of Education chairman is in grave danger. The House last month stripped Perry’s office of most of its funding in the budget debate, and the money had to be restored in a joint conference committee.

House lawmakers also voted to abolish the Texas Department of Transportation, which is chaired by Perry’s former chief of staff, and replace it with an elected commission. Not to mention the controversial $555 million in federal stimulus money that Perry wants to reject and lawmakers seemed poised to accept.

Publicly, Perry responds by exuding a “what-me-worry?” attitude.

“I don’t ever get concerned about what goes on in the Legislature,” Perry said recently. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It ebbs and flows.”

However, this past week, the governor engaged in a major effort to salvage his legislative agenda and public persona.

Perry threatened a special session if his emergency item on windstorm insurance reform does not pass. In state and national publications, he sought to clarify his nationally publicized remarks on Texas secession from the union. And Perry lobbied lawmakers on the House floor for passage of major restrictions on top 10 percent admissions to state universities — a bill that had not been on Perry’s list of priorities previously.

I suppose this is a companion piece to one from a week ago, during which time the McLeroy nomination got re-animated though not necessarily resuscitated. We still don’t know the status of the Texas Enterprise Fund in the budget, and the unemployment insurance bill still hasn’t passed, thanks in part to the ongoing chubfest. A deal has now apparently been reached on the Top Ten law, though whether it really achieves what Perry wanted it to or not I couldn’t say. So as before, tune in tomorrow, or maybe a few days from now, to see how much of a victory Perry gets to declare.

Perry’s staff also had to spend part of the week distancing him from his chief campaign consultant, who told the Dallas newspaper that expanding the GOP philosophical base is like opening a “whorehouse.” Several prominent Republican women denounced the statement in a letter to Perry as “in keeping with how you’ve governed — through division and an appeal to fear.”‘

[…]

“The governor is clearly distracted by an upcoming battle in the Republican primary and is probably is somewhat less focused on the range of issues that he might have been focused on,” [Sen. John] Carona said.

Many believe that Perry, by attacking the federal government and the Obama administration, is trying to shore up hard right support for his expected GOP primary re-election challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“A lot of decisions, from my vantage point, appear to tempered by what appeals to the far right element in a Republican primary, and that can wreak havoc on the system,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Yeah, some of us have been saying that Perry’s agenda for this entire session should be viewed through the 2010 GOP primary prism for awhile now. Say whatever else you want about our Governor, he’s not subtle, and while his motives may be unintelligible, they’re seldom a mystery.

Anti-Metro amendment removed

I’m pleased to report that the anti-Metro amendment that was in SB1263 has been removed. I am told that Rep. Ellen Cohen discussed the matter with Rep. Pickett, who agreed to remove the Houston-specific language. This is great news, not just for the fate of the Universities line, but as Christof notes, for the rest of the system:

Item (1) [of the original amendment] does not actually apply to the University Line, since there was no route set for the University Line before the referendum. But it does apply to the North Line (which was shifted from Irvington to Fulton at the request of neighborhood groups) and the Southeast Line (which was shifted from Scott to MLK, again at neighborhood request.)

Item (2) applies to every single one of the lines. METRO’s ballot named lines and described end points; it did not call out every street a line would run on. It was not required to, and METRO had not yet done studies on all of the lines.

So this legislation would [have stopped] all property acquisition on all 5 new lines immediately.

Fortunately, that is no longer the case, and for that I thank Rep. Cohen for taking the lead and to Rep. Pickett for listening to reason. (The text of SB1263 has not been updated on the Texas Legislature Online site, but I have been assured that the offending will be removed.) What this shows to me – again! – is that there’s never been a difference between the anti-rail-on-Richmond forces and the opposition to the 2003 referendum. The only constituency that could credibly claim to be anti-Richmond-but-pro-Westpark, and only interested in that, were the people in Afton Oaks, and they got what they wanted. Everyone else involved in this has been dedicated to doing whatever it takes to stop rail in Houston. The will of the people doesn’t matter to them. Clearly, we can’t rest easy till everything has been built.

Anyway. Even without Rep. Pickett’s change of stance, it’s possible this bill won’t make it onto the calendar before tomorrow’s deadline for the House to approve Senate bills, so one way or another this crisis will be averted. I’d still like to know who it was that got to Rep. Pickett and filled him full of lies, but I suppose we never will learn their identities. I do plan to hold this incident up as a shining example of the anti-Metro forces’ hypocrisy the next time I see someone complain about the agency acting in a secretive manner. I’m sure it won’t be long before that happens.

Green and Gonzalez get plaudits for climate change bill

After all the haranging I did on this, the least I can do is to note this.

The Obama administration joined environmentalists Friday in heaping praise on Texas Democratic Reps. Charlie Gonzalez and Gene Green for helping climate change legislation win approval by a congressional committee.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the pair “courageous” for joining 30 other Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in voting for the roughly 1,000-page bill late Thursday.

With a relatively close vote of 33-25, the support from Green and Gonzalez was key — one reason panel Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., spent weeks negotiating with them on a plan to cushion refiners from the proposal’s financial cost.

Waxman’s agreement to give refiners 2 percent of an annual pool of valuable pollution permits helped seal the deal.

Both lawmakers represent congressional districts with major refining operations. Green’s territory includes refining plants along the Houston ship channel. The headquarters of refiners Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., are in San Antonio.

Gonzalez also secured changes designed to ensure a San Antonio power plant would eventually get some of the free permits — even though it won’t go online until late 2010.

Their support — despite the oil industry’s broad criticism of the climate change plan — could sway other oil-patch Democrats to back the bill when it is debated by the full House later this year.

Whatever the flaws of this bill, it’s vastly better than doing nothing, and it has enough support from environmentalist groups and progressive leaders to count it as a big win, with the hope for more improvement in the future. For that, I thank Reps. Green and Gonzalez for their work. May they inspire some of their “centrist” brothers and sisters in the Senate to get on board as well.

“Near normal” hurricane season

Better than a highly active season, I guess.

With the Atlantic hurricane season drawing near, the last of a growing number of storm prognosticators, Uncle Sam, chimed in Thursday with its predictions.

Federal forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there probably would be nine to 14 named storms this year, with four to seven becoming hurricanes.

“A near-normal season is most likely,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.
Among the burgeoning community of hurricane season forecasters — from veterans such as William Gray and Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University to new players like North Carolina State — there’s a general consensus that this year will bring less tropical weather than last year’s 16 named storms.

They cite various reasons, such as an expectation of more moderate sea surface temperatures in tropical areas of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the possible development of an El Nino in the Pacific, which could dampen storm formation.

“During many El Nino years, we have had significantly fewer named storms than normal,” said Chris Hebert, the lead hurricane forecaster with Houston-based ImpactWeather, a private forecasting service.

Over the last several decades an average of about 10 named storms have formed each year, but that number has risen significantly since 1995. Most forecasters attribute the rise to an upswing in a long-term, natural cycle of Atlantic temperatures called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation.

Since 1995, 12 of the 14 Atlantic hurricane seasons have seen above-normal tropical activity.

So don’t rest easy just yet. Preseason predictions are not that accurate anyway. And as we all know, it only takes one well-aimed hurricane to make the season a bad one.

Weekend link dump for May 24

Hope you’re enjoying your Memorial Day weekend.

Yet another reason to disbelieve Selena Roberts.

David Dewhurst: Not the hardest working man in the Capitol.

A little nuance on that Gallup poll that claims more people are now “pro-life”. If it turns out that was an outlier, will there be front-page headlines noting that fact? Yeah, right.

The man who ate the GOP.

Aiieee! The Romulans are coming!

Go ahead, tell us how many calories that order of chili cheese fries has. We need to know.

Newt Gingrich says “Quit doing it in my Facebook with the Twittering!” Or something like that.

Apparently, the future isn’t bright enough for Governor Perry to wear shades.

“Frumpy” is the new “fun”.

The Top Ten Disappointing Technologies, and the http://www.pcauthority.com.au/News/143771,top-10-technologies-that-burnt-early-adopters.aspx”>Top Ten Technologies That Burned Early Adopters. Yeah, so true about the zip drive.

Hubble mission photos. Way cool.

George Will demonstrates his versatility by making stuff up on something other than global warming.

“Change comes in a tea bag.” That just might make a coffee drinker out of me.

Run, Stormy, run!

Turns out waterboarding really is torture. Who knew? Apparently, some people will require similar confirmation, however. I’m sure they can be accommodated.

So what are the rules for determining when a former elected official’s pronouncements are newsworthy?

Steph eulogizes her sister, without whom the TexansChick blog might never have been.

Westpark zealots try to pull a fast one

Just yesterday, the Chron wrote an editorial about how everything was coming up roses and daffodils for Metro lately, thanks to some federal funding (with more in the pipeline) for the light rail expansion and a generally favorable political climate. So naturally, what do we see today but this article about a sneak attack in the Lege on the Universities line.

The proposal, which still faces an uphill battle in the final days of the legislative session, was quietly attached last week to a loosely related bill by House lawmakers.

“It effectively kills the light rail program,” said George Smalley, Metro’s vice president for communications and marketing.

The new restrictions, if enacted, would limit the agency’s eminent domain authority, needed to buy property for the rail lines, if a route differs from the 2003 referendum that authorized the light rail program.

The restrictions mirror the rhetoric of rail critics, who say the location of the controversial University Line down Richmond and Westpark doesn’t conform to the referendum.

“If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk,” Smalley said.

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he added the new restrictions at the request of rail critics by amending another bill, which regulated fare enforcement by mass transit agencies.

The El Paso Democrat said they convinced him that the transit agency hadn’t complied with the referendum. He said he hadn’t talked with the agency, though, before adding the language.

At issue is whether it’s lawful to build a line partially on Richmond when the ballot described it as being on Westpark.

The agency says the largest share of the line would, in fact, be on Westpark, adding that the ballot referred to a general location, the details of which should be based on federally required cost and ridership studies. Those indicate that a segment should be on Richmond.

Pickett said he is open to changing the language.

“If … they intend to meet their promise that they made, then they shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. “It was pretty clear that there was a referendum that did state where (the line) was going, and we were just asked to ratify that.” The legislation came to light just as agency officials were hopeful that, after years of debate and uncertainty, they would have the funding and political support to move forward.

So once again, the people who lost the election and whose lawsuit is currently going nowhere have shown that they will do anything to overturn the will of the people and stop light rail in Houston. I’m amazed that they were able to influence Rep. Pickett, and appalled that he couldn’t have been bothered to at least ask Metro for a response. I’m sorry, but that’s just ignorant. Clearly, Rep. Pickett needs to hear from some people who are not anti-Metro crusaders. Feel free to give his office a call and tell him – politely! – that you support light rail in Houston, that you support Metro’s current expansion plans as they now stand, and that you oppose any effort by the Legislature to affect those plans. His Austin office number is (512) 463-0596 and his district office number is (915) 590-4349. If you do make a call, leave a comment here and tell us what kind of response you got. Thanks very much.

The bill in question is SB1263. Here’s the committee substitute version of the bill. The relevant text is the underlined section that begins “This subsection applies only to an authority created under Chapter 451, Transportation Code, that operates in an area in which the principal municipality has a population of 1.9 million or more.” You could mention that you oppose this amendment that’s been added to the committee substitute version of SB1263 when you call Pickett’s office.

By the way, there’s a real irony here in a sneak attack, made behind closed doors with no public input or notice, on an agency that’s often criticized for not operating in a transparent manner. I daresay some of the people who are behind this covert operation have been quoted in the Chronicle at one time or another berating Metro for not being more open about what it’s doing. And yet here they are, skulking through a back door, without the rest of us even having any idea who’s behind it. Way to go, y’all.

The good news is that Houston lawmakers are not going to take this lying down.

The bill had been planned for a local and consent calendar reserved for non-controversial or limited measures that draw little debate, perhaps on Wednesday. But the controversy appeared likely to force the measure to be considered like any other complex legislation.

With only a week left in the session, and with hundreds of bills in line for consideration, the bill might never get a vote.

Several lawmakers have also said they would fight any attempt to tie the agency’s hands.
“I’ve got my eye on it,” said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who predicted that the bill wouldn’t survive in its current form.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also planned to investigate the issue, saying that prohibiting the agency’s eminent domain powers “would prevent the common good.”

“I’ll get after it with all my might,” he said. “I’m a great supporter. Rail is a vital component of our future and our transportation system.”

That’s nice to hear. It would also be a good idea to call your own Rep and Senator and tell them you oppose Pickett’s amendment that removes Metro’s eminent domain power in the committee substitute for SB1263. Especially with all that’s going on right now in the House, let’s take nothing for granted.

City takes aim at more SOBs

Eight months ago, the city of Houston succeeded in closing down a strip club, its first such victory after finally getting a favorable verdict in the lawsuit to overturn the 1997 ordinance that more strictly regulated sexually-oriented businesses. They’re now hunting more game.

Lawyers for the city filed a lawsuit Friday to close a Galleria-area topless club for not having a sexually oriented business license, the beginning of a City Hall crackdown on dozens of unlicensed clubs across Houston.

The lawsuit followed the arrest Thursday evening of nine employees of All Stars Men’s Club, 2688 Winrock, including six dancers charged with solicitation of prostitution.

The suit asks 113th District Judge Patricia Hancock to issue a permanent injunction, arguing the club would not qualify for a required license because it is located 800 feet from a church and is closer than 1,500 feet to an area more than 75 percent residential.

“This is part of a bigger effort by the White administration to use the powers that are available to the city to protect and improve the quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods,” said private attorney Patrick Zummo, who was hired by the city to help enforce its sexually oriented business ordinance.

“We are working on another lawsuit that would include many of those businesses that are operating illegally, and which will probably be filed in the next couple of weeks.”

Better visit ’em while you still can, fellas. I’ll bet the city has spent the intervening time getting its ducks lined up, so barring a surprise these are the last day for the All Star Club, and whoever is in the city’s sights after it.

“We know from both Houston’s experience, and the experience in cities across the country, that sexual oriented-businesses are associated with higher rates of crime in the area around them and with lower property values,” Zummo said. “That’s why the federal courts allow reasonable regulation of these businesses.”

Again with the claims about increased crime, though I note that this time Zummo didn’t say “violent crime”. Seems to me that an investigation, by a professional news-reporting enterprise, as to the veracity of such claims would be a good idea. Maybe some day.

Graduation rates

According to one study, a little more than half of HISD’s high school freshmen ultimately graduate.

Despite dozens of commencement ceremonies planned for the next two weeks, only 58.5 percent of Houston-area students who should be graduating will be earning diplomas this spring, community advocates said today.

Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, announced on the steps of Houston City Hall this morning that his group commissioned the Texas Education Agency to conduct a study of six-year graduation rates. They learned that that 53 percent of the students who begin as ninth-graders in the Houston Independent School District had not graduated from any Texas high school in six years.

“We feel there is a real crisis, a crisis of graduation,” Sanborn said, pointing out the link between poverty and education levels. “We really don’t think the TEA and the school districts are being honest with the public.”

Sanborn said HISD estimates it graduates as many as 77 percent of its students within four years. That number is based on faulty data that doesn’t count as dropouts students who claim they’re going to be home schooled, attend private school or move out of state or country.

Sanborn said the first step in fixing high schools is admitting the severity of the problem. He called for the state Legislature, the TEA and individual school districts to become more transparent and use the graduation rate calculation formula Children at Risk used in this study.

Karen Garza, HISD’s chief academic officer, said the district certainly sees dropouts as an important problem that they are working to address. She questioned whether the Children at Risk numbers fail to consider how mobile the population of this urban school district is by excluding students who may start here but graduated in Oklahoma or Mexico or anywhere outside of Texas.

“We acknowledge this is a major issue. We’ve got to get better at keeping kids in school,” Garza said. “We want solutions. We offer more and more options, things like flexible hours and on-line courses.”

But, Garza said, HISD uses the formula prescribed by the TEA and she doesn’t see the Children at Risk calculation as being any more reliable.

I don’t know which way of calculating the “true” graduation rate is superior. I’m not sure it matters that much – whichever method you choose, you can at least tell if it’s getting better or worse over time. The NCAA manages to keep track of graduation rates at its member institutions, so this can’t be rocket science. Pick a method and stick with it – let’s not lose the forest for the trees.

Council Member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown comments on the Children at Risk study. I’m still a bit amazed at how education has become an issue in this race, and I’m still not sure what role the Mayor should be playing in Houston’s public education; it’s not clear to me how much of a role the Mayor could play without legislative action, anyway. That said, I’m always glad to see public education be the topic of conversation, at least among people who care about its success. Maybe just by keeping the spotlight on it, we can have a positive effect.

“Just do the test”

Grits points to this NYT article about the next phase of the battle between prosecutors and inmates over innocence claims and DNA testing. I agree with Grits – if some defendants are embarking on fishing expeditions, I say let them fish. It’s not like the state never does that, and all it takes is one successful result to justify the practice. The cost can be on the claimant in a contested case if he doesn’t have a court order, with the proviso that a result which proves innocence, or at least gets a conviction overturned, can be used to get reimbursement. We’ve seen way too many innocent men go free, often as the article notes too late to do anything about the real criminal, to continue to play these petty little games. Given that we’re unlikely to see a widespread change in attitude among the prosecutorial class, and given the general level of indifference shown to innocence claims by various federal appeals courts and SCOTUS, perhaps federal legislation is needed to make this happen. Maybe Sen. Webb can put that on his to-do list.

Where things stand in the House

So after yesterday’s chubathon, which lasted till one AM, there are still a bunch of local and consent bills to be dealt with. After that, there are still more bills to go before the House could get to today’s calendar, with SB362 still parked atop it. That makes it function as a de facto blocker bill, the irony of which I trust is lost on no one.

I can’t say for sure that the Dems’ strategy will work, in the sense of stalling long enough to keep SB362 from ever coming to the floor. I’m not sure how the math works out, and I presume the Republicans can and will force everyone to be on the floor as much as possible to try to maximize the time for bills to be brought up. It’s possible the Republicans will go along with the two thirds rule to get to some bills ahead of SB362, and it’s even possible some kind of compromise could be reached to allow SB362 to be voted on once and for all. Hard to say what that could be at this point, but crazier things have happened in the waning days of a session. Until further notice, assume there will be a lot more small talk and clock-watching on the floor.

UPDATE: There are some good bills that are stuck behind SB362 on the calendar. If the Dems’ chubbing effort is successful, those bills will die. That is a shame, but it’s the Republicans that have set the priority by declaring voter ID to be the single most important issue facing Texas today. They’re perfectly capable of re-evaluating that priority.

The zombie nominee

As we know, the Senate confirmation of Don McLeroy as Chair of the State Board of Education, which we all thought had been scuttled back in April, got new life earlier this week when Senate Nominations Committee chair Mike Jackson, who had originally said he wouldn’t bring the issue up if the votes weren’t there to confirm McLeroy, brought it up and got committee approval. The full Senate will take it up next week, and the question is what if anything has changed. Elise Hu games it out.

So the Dems think they can effectively block with commitments of twelve senators to vote no. Meanwhile, TEA sources say they’ve heard something different.

“I’ve heard two or three Democrats [would vote for McLeroy],” said TEA Commissioner Robert Scott. “I’ve also heard one Republican is a hard ‘no’, so no one really knows for sure.”

The timing is everything, considering the number of votes to confirm McLeroy depend on how many members are present at the time of the vote. Assuming all the Republican members will vote in favor, it would take at least three Democratic senators to leave the floor and not cast a vote in order for McLeroy to make it through.

Scott and TEA General Counsel David Anderson reminded us that this might be one of those “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” situations, saying it’s unclear who McLeroy would be replaced with as chairman, and it’s unknown whether that would be more or less satisfying to McLeroy’s detractors.

The Dems could survive one defection, as eleven votes are sufficient to derail the nomination. Muse and Lisa Falkenberg consider what might happen if McLeroy does get sunk. Muse:

What happens if McLeroy is not confirmed? Governor Perry gets to appoint someone else from the SBOE as Chair. He could certainly appoint someone who is equally as bad – Dunbar, Cargill, Mercer, Leo or Bradley. Or he could appoint a moderate Republican like Bob Craig, who has the best interests of Texas school children top of mind instead of a far religious right agenda.

That’s a nice thought, but I fear Falkenberg is correct:

But another question is whether McLeroy’s defeat will really save the state of Texas any further embarrassment?

Maybe not. According to another bit of scuttlebutt from a lawmaker and few e-mailers today, it could actually make things worse. I always thought if McLeroy were ousted, Perry would pick one of thoughtful, sensible Republicans who serve on the board. There are several good choices: Bob Craig of Lubbock, Geraldine “Tincy” Miller of Dallas and Patricia Hardy of Weatherford.

But the name I heard mentioned today was none of those. It was Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond.

Yes, that Cynthia Dunbar.

It’s certainly makes me wonder if, under at least one scenario, McLeroy’s miracle could actually save us from a curse far worse.

What’s an enlightened Texan to do?

My answer to that question is to work one’s enlightened keester off in 2010 to ensure that we have a Governor who won’t view such embarrassments as good politics. Working to unelect Dunbar, whose SBOE district is a nice shade of purple, wouldn’t hurt either. Not the sexiest answer in the world, I know, but that’s the way it goes.

As far as McLeroy himself is concerned, if I thought there was a reasonable chance that Perry would take this failure as a lesson in the need to moderate, I’d go all in on torpedoing him. But when has Perry ever done that? I believe he’ll just double down on the crazy, since that’s clearly his electoral strategy and this would present him with another opportunity to stroke the aggrieved paranoia of his base while giving KBH another opportunity to not address a hot button issue because she’s too damn wishy-washy. Given that, I say the Dem Senators can do whatever they think is best. Draw the line in the sand, curry favor with Finance Chair Steve Ogden (who happens to be McLeroy’s Senator), come down with a newly-evolved 24-hour virus and miss the whole sorry spectacle, I’m giving a free pass. Just put us all out of our misery and get it over with.

UPDATE: Muse notes that Republicans are calling Democratic senators to implore them to vote to confirm McLeroy. She also has a list of Dem senators whose position on McLeroy’s confirmation are unknown.

UPDATE: And more from Muse, who clearly disagrees with me on this.

RIP, Debutant

I’m very sorry to say that Deborah Greer-Costello, better known as Debutant, passed away earlier this week from the leukemia that she had been fighting since 2005. I never met Deb in person, I only knew her through her writing and through her sister, my friend Stephanie Stradley, but it was easy to see what a vibrant and interesting person she was. From her death notice, it’s clear she accomplished much in her too-short life, including a lot after she first got sick.

As per her request, I’ll be visiting the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center shortly. I ask you to please do the same as well. Rest in peace, Debutant.

The power of burritos

Mmm…burritos…

The hamburger is safe. Pizza probably doesn’t have to worry. Nevertheless, on the menu of perennially popular food, one offering has been gaining steam against competitors: the burrito.

Thanks to favorable demographics in the U.S. and consumers’ growing demand for the food, the burrito is proving to be a moneymaker for some restaurant chains.

Chipotle, which has 15 Houston-area restaurants, reported its first quarter sales increased to $355 million from $305 million during the same three-month period in 2008. Despite the economic dip, the Denver company with 830 U.S. establishments plans to open more than 120 restaurants this year.

While some restaurant chains are shuttering locations or reporting decreased sales, burrito businesses like Chipotle, Freebirds World Burrito and Bullritos are in expansion mode.

“I certainly think that burritos have taken place alongside hamburgers as iconic food in this country,” said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “There’s certainly a lot of reasons for that, demographic changes and broadening of culinary foods, but also the simple convenience of the burrito.”

Freebirds, which has 25 Texas and Oklahoma locations, including six in Houston, plans to open at least six more Texas locations this year.

“It’s a very popular menu item in America,” said Bryan Lockwood, president of Tavistock Restaurants, which owns Freebirds. “It’s probably just behind pizza.”

This is a business-section story, so it’s about expansion and sales figures and whatnot. Which is too bad, because if you’re going to write a story about burritos in Houston, you really ought to mention Mission Burritos, which pre-dates all of these other guys, and in my opinion which makes a better product to boot. Be that as it may, reading this has made me hungry, so if you’ll excuse me for a minute, I’m gonna go get something to eat.

Chubbing

That’s the word of the day, as the Democrats use up most of the ten-minute allotment for discussion of bills on the Local and Consent calendar in order to delay, hopefully to death, the voter ID bill SB362. It’s not a filibuster, as there’s no such thing in the House – the talking is merely designed to slow the whole process down, which it has done in both chambers. Since there were over 200 bills on the Local and Consent calendar, and since the bills are taken in order, taking nearly ten minutes per bill can really grind things down. Dems have noted a way to get to the bills everyone really wants to tackle, by voting to do so on a Senate-like two-thirds vote to consider a bill out of order, but so far there have been no takers on that.

Burka thinks the Dems are making a huge strategic and political blunder by adopting this tactic. I agree with him on one point: Rick Perry will have no hesitation about calling a special session, if the only thing that prevents voter ID from passing is a successful murder of the clock. That’s why I’ve thought for awhile that the best possible outcome is a floor vote that ends with the bill not passing. Maybe that’s not attainable – if so, running out the clock and hoping for the best is about all there is left to do. I strongly disagree with his assertion that they may as well give up the fight, on this and on unemployment insurance, which will surely pass the House but would not survive a promised veto. On voter ID, the Democratic base can forgive losing, especially in a case where the deck was stacked to begin with, but it won’t forgive surrender, not on this. Given a choice between giving the Rs a campaign issue and pissing off the very people they’ll be counting on to help them win elections next year, it’s no contest. As for UI, who’s to say Perry will necessarily follow through, and if he does who’s to say it’s good politics for him to do so? I don’t see the value in punting and am frankly a little puzzled by Burka’s touting of it in either case.

As I write this, the chubbing continues, for who knows how much longer. I don’t know how this ends. More than likely, it ends the way it was seemingly pre-ordained to end when the Senate gutted the two thirds rule so it could ram voter ID through, with SB362 passing. That may happen sometime before Tuesday, the last day for the House to pass a Senate bill on second reading, or it may happen later this summer. I’d still rather go down fighting. BOR and Rep. Peña have more.

UPDATE: Doesn’t look like there will be any way out of this other than straight through it.

Friday random ten: The state you’re in

Gonna switch gears here for a couple of Fridays and do some themed lists. I was inspired to put a few of these together back when I did the spring songs and good songs lists, and I’m finally getting around to posting them now. First up is State Songs, ten songs about states:

1. New York State of Mind – Billy Joel
2. Stupid Texas Song – Austin Lounge Lizards
3. Garden State Stomp – Dave van Ronk
4. North Dakota – Lyle Lovett
5. Old Dominion – Eddie From Ohio
6. California Here I Come – Shorty Long
7. Massachusettes – Greg Greenaway
8. Carolina In My Mind – James Taylor
9. Georgia On My Mind – Ray Charles
10. There’s A Panther In Michigan – Trout Fishing In America

I could have included more Texas songs, but I figured geographical diversity was in order here. What’s on your playlist for this holiday weekend?

Gallery Furniture fire

Like most people in Houston, I was shocked and saddened to hear about this.

As flames ripped through one of Houston’s most notable retail icons Thursday night, Gallery Furniture founder Jim McIngvale vowed to rebuild.

But McIngvale, who earned fame with his colorful commercials and self-imposed moniker of Mattress Mack, acknowledged “millions and millions” in dollars of merchandise had been damaged in his flagship store’s warehouse.

To his employees he promised, “We won’t quit.”

This morning he was at his other location at 2411 Post Oak Blvd., which opened earlier this year, preparing to start selling furniture again. True to form, shortly after dawn he was filming a commercial to remind customers of the new Galleria-area location.

McIngvale said it wasn’t clear when he could get back into the original location, much less reopen it. In the meantime, he said the store is scouting locations for warehouse space to house several truckloads of furniture on its way.

Mack and Gallery Furniture are Houston icons, and if anyone can come back from this, they can. My best wishes to them as they rebuild.

Skinning a cat: Alternate methods

As you know, the TxDOT sunset bill HB300 included among its many House amendments a couple that were aimed at killing off red light cameras in Texas’ cities, by putting them under the authority of DPS and by forbidding the renewal of existing contracts with camera vendors. While it is entirely possible that these amendments will be removed by the Senate, it’s safe to say that there exists legislative will to do away with the cameras. As such, the cities that operate them and which by and large have made money off of them are taking action now to protect their investments.

Officials in Arlington and Southlake are moving swiftly to sign 15- and 20-year deals with their respective vendors in hopes of getting around a plan by lawmakers to phase out the controversial devices.

“It’s not the state’s business. It’s our business in terms of how we regulate local traffic,” Arlington Councilman Mel LeBlanc said Wednesday. “We feel the original decision to institute red-light cameras has a lot of validity to it and is a public safety benefit to Arlington.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Southlake signed a 15-year deal with Redflex Traffic Systems on Wednesday, extending the city’s red-light camera program through 2024.

And Tuesday night, the Arlington City Council authorized staff to sign an extension with American Traffic Solutions through 2027. That hasn’t happened yet, but city officials say they’ll continue watching the activity in Austin and, if it looks like a ban is inevitable, sign the long-term deal before June 1.

Pretty clever, if you ask me. You have to figure that the reps who led the charge against the cameras – Gary Elkins, Carl Isett, and Solomon Ortiz, Jr are the big three – are kicking themselves for not covering that particular base. And because I know you’re curious:

Houston is “reviewing what our possible options are should the legislation pass,” spokesman Frank Michel said. Houston’s contract with ATS expires in June 2011.

I presume the cities with cameras would have 90 days after the bill is signed, which is how long it takes for a new law to take effect, to get their affairs in order. Look for this to turn into a stampede if the amendments remain in place.

Finally, on a tangential topic:

[Arlington] has cameras at 17 intersections and could place them at up to 40 under the contract. Wrecks at intersections with cameras have decreased 30 percent on average, said Steve Evans, management services director.

“We are seeing tangible benefits from the cameras,” said Councilman Robert Rivera, who represents southeast Arlington. “We’re seeing a reduction in fatalities, a reduction in accidents and an increased sense of awareness of safety in intersections.”

[…]

Southlake installed its first two cameras last year and recently installed four more. Accidents at the first two intersections decreased by an average of 17 percent, officials said.

In North Richland Hills, nine cameras are in operation, spokesman Frank Fiorello said.

Crashes decreased by 54 percent at those intersections between September 2007 and August 2008.

Sure does stand in contrast to Houston’s experience so far, doesn’t it? Which leads me to wonder again if that red light camera study was so screwed up as to be completely useless, if the study was fine but Houston’s implementation was fatally flawed, or if it was all just a statistical fluke that will vanish over time. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next study to get some idea of that.

Parker on education

Last week, I noted that Mayoral candidates Peter Brown and Gene Locke expressed very different opinions at a candidate forum about the Mayor’s role in public education, with Brown advocating an urban school district with Mayoral appointees for its board, and Locke disagreeing with that approach. Both campaigns followed up with post-event press releases touting their positions. I’ve now received a similar statement from Annise Parker, which I present beneath the fold. I really need to spend some more time thinking about this, which I hope to do shortly after sine die, when I’m not devoting 80+% of my bloggy brain resources to the Lege. For now, here’s Parker’s statement on education.

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Endorsement watch: Three Senators for Locke

Via email from the Gene Locke campaign, the three Democratic State Senators who serve in Houston have all endorsed Locke’s candidacy for Mayor.

“At a time when Houston needs a strong, accomplished leader at City Hall, the right candidate has come forward. We are committed to seeing Gene Locke elected Mayor of Houston,” declared John Whitmire, Dean of the Texas Senate and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice; Rodney Ellis, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Organization and a member of the far-reaching Committee on State Affairs; and Mario Gallegos, Chairman of the Senate Sub-committee on Flooding & Evacuations and Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Jurisprudence. The declaration came in the form of a joint statement issued from Austin where the Texas Legislature is in the final weeks of its biennial session.

I’ve reproduced the email beneath the fold. I wasn’t following endorsements very closely during the 2003 Mayoral campaign, but my recollection is that there weren’t too many of them being given this early on. The campaign cycle starts a lot earlier these days, thanks to things like early voting and a greater emphasis on social networking, but this is still a nice catch for Locke. With the three main contenders all being Democrats, I suspect there will be more of a push for endorsements like these. There’s video of the three statements at Locke’s web page if you want to hear what they say instead of reading it, which you can do by clicking on.

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Intermodal Transit Center update

Swamplot has a spiffy picture of the proposed Intermodal Transit Center on North Main, which last we checked may or may not actually get built. But we’ll always have the pretty pictures, whatever else may happen. Check it out.

Budget yes, UI not yet

The conference committee on the budget finished its work yesterday.

While final details are still emerging, the 10 conferees worked out a last minute plan for spending $700 million of federal stimulus money for state fiscal stabilization. They hope that it will avert a special session, even if Perry vetoes some or all of the money. It appeared to go to school textbooks in part. And there were other things funded that are near and dear to the Perry family, such as preservation of a couple more county courthouses ($7 million) and restoring the fire-gutted Governor’s Mansion.

Burkablog and Floor Pass, which notes that the committee will vote out the budget on Tuesday, fill in a few more details. The first obstacle is making sure Governor Perry will sign it, but so far there’s no evidence that he wants to force a do-over. Not dipping into the Rainy Day Fund, for which we can all thank President Obama and the stimulus package, likely helps out there.

Unclear at this time is the fate of the Davis/Walle amendment, which would drain money from the Texas Enterprise Fund in the event that SB1569 gets vetoed. And speaking of SB1569, it took a few steps forward in the House, but ultimately was not brought to a vote. The best writeup I’ve seen about what went on during this comes from Ed Sills’ TxAFLCIOENews; I’ve reproduced it beneath the fold.

According to Brandi Grissom on Twitter, the House has recessed for the night due to its computers being down, without having passed any bills today. They’re scheduled to work Saturday and Sunday, and according to Gardner Selby, voter ID is supposedly atop the calendar for Saturday. That’s assuming they actually get to it – as we’ve seen multiple times this session, being on the calendar is no guarantee of anything. The Democrats will surely do what they can to run out the clock if they feel they must. We’ll see how far down the agenda the House gets tomorrow.

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Roy takes my advice

When I blogged about a recent story in the Chron about some resume-stretching by Roy Morales, I suggested that he should turn his firing by the Houston Emergency Center as a positive. Well, he’s now written a letter to the editor doing exactly that.

But it is the description of my departure from the Houston Emergency Center that is the most incomplete. I should have been more forceful in explaining the circumstances. The fact is, I bucked the city bureaucracy because I thought decisions were being made that jeopardized the 911 response system and put the people of Houston at risk. Inexperienced people were installing new technology for which there was no written plan. And this was occurring at a time when the center was facing issues related to previous technology and electrical problems. So I spoke up. I said it could bring the system down. My superiors disagreed. I was given the option to leave, and I did. Faced with the same decision now, I’d do the same thing.

Better late than never, I guess. Morales spends much of the letter claiming that he was misrepresented by Alan Bernstein. That’s pretty much SOP for politicians about whom a story like this is written, though of course the original claims that Bernstein pushed him on were made in public forums. I’m not exactly sure how that’s anyone else’s fault, but hey, whatever gets you through the day.

Windstorm insurance bill passes House committee

I’ve mentioned the prospect of a special session several times lately. One of the issues that could be the cause of a special session is windstorm insurance, as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association took it on the chin last year thanks to Hurricane Ike. Governor Perry even came to the floor of the House yesterday to threaten that he’d call a special session for June 2, the day after sine die, if a bill didn’t get passed. Apparently, that was enough to make something happen.

Windstorm insurance reform legislation suddenly got voted out of a House committee Wednesday after Gov. Rick Perry threatened to call a special session on June 2 if the bill does not pass.

Both inland and coastal lawmakers expressed concerns about the bill they voted on, but said they needed to get something to a House/Senate conference committee if there is any hope of reaching a compromise to avoid a special session.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, complained that he was being forced to vote on a 51-page bill that he had not read. He said the House has had the entire session to work on a compromise and now was being presented a “false choice” of voting on an unseen bill or having it die in the Legislature’s closing crunch.

“The House is on fire! Let’s vote it out,” Martinez Fischer said.

“I don’t care what you do. If you want to vote it down, vote it down,” replied House Insurance Committee Chairman John Smithee, R-Amarillo.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, joined Martinez Fischer in voting against the bill, also complaining that she had not had a chance to read it.

“I’m not trying to slow the process down, but don’t I have a right to read this stuff?” Thompson asked.

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, urged his fellow committee members to vote for the bill just to keep it moving and not let it die. He said there are many things in it that still bother him.

“We have been told we will be called into a special session on June 2 if we do not get this matter resolved,” Hunter said. “Get the process moving so we do not kill the issue.”

The bill in question is SB14, which was approved by the Senate on April 30, but which has been revised since then. One hopes everyone will have the time to read the bill before it gets voted on again, not that this has ever been a requirement for getting stuff passed; if it were, we might never have heard the words “Trans Texas Corridor”. One also hopes that this bill will be given priority over clearly less-important things like voter ID. Finally, one hopes that this is the only thing that’s on Governor Perry’s list of reasons for which to call a special session, and not just the cudgel of the day. I don’t want the Lege to come back this summer any more than they do.

Mattress Mack is watching you

Be sure to smile for the cameras if you visit the Westchase District.

A West Houston nonprofit group on Tuesday applied for city permission to install the first of a dozen security cameras it plans to purchase to reduce crime in the affluent neighborhood.

Images from the cameras will be fed to the Houston Police Department as part of an ongoing city initiative to assemble a network of hundreds of security cameras to monitor public streets, stadiums, freeways and the Port of Houston.

Calling it a prime example of a private-public partnership for public safety, HPD Assistant Chief Vickie King said the westside initiative is allowed by city ordinance.

“Communities who want to install cameras that capture movements on the public right of way may do so, so long as private property is shielded from view,” she said.

The proposed camera system was introduced Tuesday by Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and his wife, Linda, who live in an apartment at the Westside Tennis and Fitness Center, which they own. McIngvale said he became a fan of camera-surveillance technology because it quickly ended auto thefts and burglaries after he installed them at his furniture business.

“Police are stretched on their budgets, so it’s something we wanted to do as merchants,” said McIngvale, a member of the nonprofit Operation Westside Success, which is raising money for the system. “We’ve got a big economic stake in this, and it’s up to us to make our neighborhoods better.”

Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the city has 25 surveillance cameras in the central business district and is using federal grants to tie into state highway-department cameras on Houston freeways, as well as cameras monitoring the Houston Ship Channel and port facilities.

Yes, I remember when the existing downtown cameras became more ubiquitous. At the time, the goal was given as crime reduction as well as better response to emergency calls. While the former is clearly a goal of the Westchase cameras, it’s interesting to note that wasn’t mentioned here as a function of the downtown cameras. Not sure if that reflects an official shift or just the vagaries of editing, but I thought it was worth pointing out. I also rememher that some folks got all freaked out by the downtown cameras, which were an initiative of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, who is not mentioned in this story. I wonder if there will be a similar reaction to this.

James Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District, said cameras the improvement district installed on private property outside restaurants and shopping malls led to a dramatic reduction in crime.

“We have 11 cameras we’re using, and it’s fantastic,” Murphy said. “We’ve reduced parking-lot crime in those locations 70 percent on average, and in some areas more. We’re talking about auto theft, auto break-ins and robberies.”

Somewhat serendipitously, this story appeared a day after this one, about a study on the CCTV cameras in London.

The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer.

The review of 44 research studies on CCTV schemes by the Campbell Collaboration found that they do have a modest impact on crime overall but are at their most effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and the introduction of security guards.

That seems to jibe with the Westchase experience. As long as they don’t see the cameras as a panacea, they ought to get some benefit from them. Thanks to Grits for the link.

Credit card reform

Good.

Landmark credit card legislation, poised to reach President Obama’s desk as early as Memorial Day, will force the card industry to reinvent itself and consumers to rethink the way they use plastic.

The Senate Tuesday took a critical step forward by voting 90 to 5 to pass a bill that would sharply curtail credit card issuers’ ability to raise interest rates and charge fees. Lawmakers will now turn to reconciling differences with a similar bill approved by the House last month. Swift passage was expected given that the Senate version received so much bipartisan support and that the White House has pressed for action.

When Obama signs a bill into law as expected, the $960 billion credit card industry will go through restructuring that could have broad implications for consumers. (Details of the bill can be found here.)

The bill will prohibit card companies from raising interest rates on existing balances unless the borrower is at least 60 days late. If the cardholder pays on time for the following six months, the company would have to restore the original rate. On cards with more than one interest rate, issuers will have to apply payments first to the debts with the highest rates, which would help borrowers pay off their cards more quickly.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the bill “will help create a more fair, transparent and simple consumer credit market.”

The credit card industry is a great example of the consequences of deregulation gone wild. The profits they were raking in above a certain point had little to do with creating wealth and everything to do with transferring it from lower-income consumers to their own bottom lines. This is long overdue, and frankly it should have gone farther. But this is a good start.

When credit cards were introduced about 50 years ago, issuers practiced a one-size-fits-all approach of charging an annual fee and roughly the same interest rate of about 18 percent to everyone. As the industry became more deregulated in the 1980s, around the time that credit scores were introduced, issuers were able to separate the risky from the not-so-risky borrower and tailor the terms of card contracts.

The money they made from customers who did not pay their bills in full each month became an important revenue source. The industry makes $15 billion annually from penalty fees, and one-fifth of consumers carrying credit card debt pay an interest rate above 20 percent, according to figures cited by the White House and compiled from the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Reserve.

To make up for the lost revenue, card issuers will turn to those customers who pay what they owe in full and on time every month, analysts said. Gone will be the days when creditworthy customers enjoyed the benefits of low interest rates and cards that offer rewards such as frequent flier miles and cash back, they said. Annual fees, which had been banished to cards with rewards programs, are likely to return. Offers for zero percent balance transfers are likely to become rarer.

“This industry will start looking more like a one-size-fits-all pricing approach which dominated in the ’80s — 18 percent interest and a $20 annual fees,” said David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report, which covers the industry. Customers who pay in full each month will have “to start picking up the slack, to start pulling their weight.”

You mean they’ll change business models to be more like American Express? What a terrible thing that would be, and I say that as one of those so-called “deadbeats” who pays in full every month. Like Kevin Drum, I don’t buy any of the industry’s sobbing, and if I did I’d have no sympathy for them anyway. I mean, come on, if people like me were so bad for their business, why did they never cut me off or change the terms of my credit? So, you know, cry me a river already. Maybe this will force them to innovate in ways that are actually beneficial to the customer.